Monday, December 17, 2018

Why #WisdomRemixed

You may have noticed me posting a lot recently on social media about a collection of shirts and hoodies called #WisdomRemixed. That's a little thing my friend and I started as an opportunity to do something creative together. What follows is the rationale behind it. I hope you like it!

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"What you have learned,
you must unlearn."
- Yoda, #WisdomRemixed

Something magical happens every now and then. Some artful, imaginative, deep soul will string a few words together, all the necessary elements of insight align, and a little bit of timeless, transcendent wisdom emerges. And the world is better for it.

But before too long, nuggets of wisdom get passed around so much that they become stale. A cliché is, essentially, timeless truth corroded by time. We start to lose sight of the essential insight of our insights. And so even when found in possession of wisdom, we are gradually, insidiously becoming less wise.

TWEET THIS: A cliché is, essentially, timeless truth corroded by time. #wisdomremixed

#Wisdomremixed is an attempt to stop the steady slide into cliche that so many great insights fall victim to. These graphic reinterpretations of classic quotes, shuffled and flipped in fresh ways, remind us of the brilliance behind them and invite us to reconsider how they might change our way of seeing ourselves, each other, and the world we live in. We unlearn, we relearn, and we reclaim the wisdom of those who came before us.

TWEET THIS: We unlearn, we relearn, and we reclaim the wisdom of those who came before us.

Wear #wisdomremixed with pride! Post photos of you out and about in these shirts and hoodies! Send us your own remixed wisdom! As the great Ferris Bueller once (sort of) said:

“If you don’t stop
and look around
once in a while,
life moves pretty fast.”
#WisdomRemixed

Check out the catalog of offerings at https://wisdom-remixed.myshopify.com/. More items to come!

Friday, December 07, 2018

Middling 2.2: Whenever Possible, I Go Vinyl

Have you heard about the woman whose full name includes the command prefixes of two AI devices on the market? Alexa Seary says her life has become “a waking nightmare” since Apple and later Amazon introduced their virtual assistants.

At least now, I suppose, her friends are ordering her around using her first name instead of her last name. Ha ha very funny. We opened our home to artificial intelligence this year when Kara’s sister gave us two Amazon Echo Dots. So far we use them mostly for weather reports, sci-fi humor (“Tea. Earl grey. Hot.” Ha ha very funny), and music.

Here’s the problem: Your virtual assistant is more loyal to her corporate creator than to you. So Alexa will not link to our iTunes account; she will only access our Amazon account. That means I can listen to all the music I’ve bought Kara’s mom through Amazon, but none of the music I've bought for myself through iTunes. (Not to mention none of the music Kara's mom has bought for me. And she and I . . . well, we have different musical tastes.)

That’s okay, because I am still, by and large, stubborn about owning music in physical form. Whenever possible, I go vinyl. So for Christmas I also got two brand new records: If All I Was Was Black by the great Mavis Staples, and Fifteen by the Wailin’ Jennys.

Let me quickly say that even a “bad” Mavis Staples album still prominently features Mavis Staples: earnest, soulful, wise, fully committed. I read an interview with her years ago where she revealed that Bob Dylan had wanted to marry her. She told him he needed to get right with God first. I like that and I like Mavis. In recent years she’s collaborated with Chicago legend and Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy, which in theory should work: Both are great artists who don’t do anything halfway. But I found this album a little too quaint.

I wonder if Tweedy is star struck: I know that I get a little deferential when I’m editing a legend. I wonder if Mavis exists in his imagination more as an icon than a person. I wonder if she’s just getting tired after nearly seventy years of singing and nearly eighty years of fighting the good fight. Or maybe they’ve gone as far as they can go together. Whatever the case may be, in the end it’s still an American treasure singing, so maybe it will grow on me. Tracks of note include “Little Bit” and “Try Harder.” But also check out her collaborations with Arcade Fire: “I Give You Power” and the Talking Heads track “Slippery People.” Powerful and prophetic—classic Mavis.

The Wailin’ Jennys is, I suppose, technically a “super group.” Three women, each doing just fine as a solo act, decided to get together. Their voices are heavenly together. They broke up a while ago but reunited for their fifteenth anniversary, with a new album of favorite covers and a tour to support it. They actually came to Colorado Springs while I was out of town. Sigh.

Fifteen came out the year Tom Petty died, so a cover of his “Wildflowers” was perhaps inevitable. But it’s amazing. I could listen to it over and over and over. Also of note is the cover of “The Valley” by K. D. Lang, a song I’d heard but never really noticed, a sad and knowing piece with a hopeful chorus. That and “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which Warren Zevon wrote from his death bed, are now shortlisted for my own funeral playlist.

I also, kind of as a joke, got the new Taylor Swift CD, Reputation, for Christmas. It’s pretty good, although whoever started the “Old Taylor is dead” thing (spoiler alert: it was Taylor herself) needs to take a second pass. 1989 was her Great Leap Forward; this is just her natural next step.

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This post is excerpted from the Spring 2018 issue of Middling, an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on music, books, and life in middle age. Let me know if you'd like to get it.

Postscript: The Mavis Staples album has indeed grown on me. You should get it.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Middling 2.1: Beyond the Glitter to the Light

Some jokes are wasted on the young. Case in point: “Electric Boogaloo,” the subtitle to the sequel of the movie Breakin’, which I first saw at a theater in Neillsville, Wisconsin, with my cousins when we were young. That’s how I remember it, at least. Breakin’ was a theatrical attempt to capitalize on white suburban fascination with hip hop dance. It certainly worked on us.

At the end of the credits for that first film we were told to keep an eye out for the second, but by the time Electric Boogaloo hit the theaters I had moved on to other interests—hair metal, maybe. (The time bleeds together.) I still to this day have never seen the sequel, but I love the cadence of the title, and I find myself throwing back to it every time I reference the second in a sequence of something. Millennials rarely get the joke.

Such is the travail of the middle-aged life. I am reminded almost daily of the ephemerality of our preoccupations. The things that fascinate us, the things that shock us, the things that seem so earth-shatteringly important will one day seem cute and immaterial, the way old people seem to young people. One day I myself will be that old and cute and immaterial artifact. It’s only a matter of time.

I’m writing this the day after the birthday of the late great Thomas Merton, a mid-twentieth century monk whose writings have been significant for me. He died fifty years ago this year; he was five years older than I will be this year when he died. Among his later writings is the fantastic book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which covers a lot of ground but ends with a refreshingly nondualistic reflection on the ephemera of every age:

There is the hope, there is the world
that remakes itself at God's command
without consulting us. . . .
The glitter is false?
Well, the light is true.
The glitter has ceased to matter.
It is even beautiful.

It occurs to me that the middling age is the opportunity to look beyond the glitter to the light. At first that can feel like a great giving up, even like a rapid succession of great givings up, with no assurance on the far end that we’ll have anything left. But from the angle Merton describes, this looking beyond is a gift, a truer seeing of everything.

Kara and I rewatched Breakin’ a year or so ago. It was huge for her, apparently, when she was a kid. It was cheesy, but fun. You should check it out.

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This is an excerpt from an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on books, music, and life in middle age. This excerpt is from the spring 2018 issue. Let me know if you'd like to be on the distribution list.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Two Ladders, No Heaven: Stan Lee, Yoko Ono, and the Universes They Imagined

When Stan Lee was a student, he was clowning around with friends in the classroom office of the school paper when he spotted a ladder. "“So I climbed up and wrote Stan Lee Is God on the ceiling, which was one of the earliest evidences of my overpowering inferiority complex.” He was joking, of course: Stan Lee was a lot of things, but he was not dealing with an inferiority complex.

Joining the comic book industry in its infancy, Stan Lee, who died this week at the age of 95, worked like a horse for decades, seeing the fortunes of his chosen media rise and fall in the process. By the time he found himself working for Marvel Comics, the superhero genre was running on fumes, a caricature of its former greatness. It was all monsters all the time for Marvel. And then Stan and Jack Kirby came up with the Fantastic Four, a highly dysfunctional family of superheroes made powerful by exposure to radiation. There was even a monster among them--the Thing, a man whose body had been mutated into orange rock.

And Stan saw what he had made, and it was very good. And so a universe was born, and in a sense Stan's scribbling at the top of the ladder was proven prophetic.

I've always been a Marvel guy. I was buying countless back issues of The Avengers before Chris Hemsworth was born. My first book was an ode to comic books, which tells you something about my nerd cred. I've idolized Stan Lee for most of my life. But as I step back from Stan Lee I see not so much the man as the mindset: What happens at the top of a ladder is generally telling.

Stan Lee and all his contemporaries at the dawn of the superhero age were preoccupied with power, and rightly so. Many of the founders of the industry were Jewish, and they were creating characters and crafting tales while hearing stories of the criminalization of Judaism in Germany during the build-up to World War II. Closer to home, they were feeling the ongoing effects of the Great Depression. Is it any wonder that the fantasies of the day were caught up in deliverance: powerful men and women saving the helpless from every trouble and dispensing justice to those who would harm others. Captain America was introduced to the world in a drawing: He was punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

How do we get the power to be heroes? In many cases, we manufacture it. Captain America was cooked up in a laboratory; the original Human Torch was a robot; Batman had deep pockets. Stan Lee came into his own in an industry that glorified power and sought to harness it. For his generation, the first impressions of the nuclear bomb were good: It had the power to bring whole wars to an end. And even a couple of decades later, after "fallout" became a thing and nuclear power lost some of its luster, there was still the hope that good things come from those who harness it: The Fantastic Four were fantastic, after all, and while the Hulk was terrifying, he was also cool. Radioactive material made Matt Murdock blind, but it also made him Daredevil; a radioactive spider turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man. "With great power comes great responsibility," Peter learned the hard way from his uncle Ben. But before you get the responsibility, first you get the power.

YOKO ONO was born ten years and some change after Stan Lee in Tokyo, Japan. She was twelve and a half when Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were obliterated by nuclear bombs. Somewhere between 130,000 and 226,000 Japanese people died as a result of those two bombings. Imagine coming of age in full view of the most devastating military action of all time. Imagine that the power harnessed through the technologies of warfare--atom splitting and bomb making--were symbols not of deliverance and victory but the utter devastation of your homeland. I had a professor who wanted to reset our calendars so that August 6, 1945, when the US government killed Hiroshima, Japan, would henceforth be counted as the beginning of time, the start of the nuclear age. Every future decision of ethical import would have to take into consideration the fact that we had it within our power to destroy the planet.

Yoko Ono has her own ladder story. In 1966 she was exhibiting her art in London when John Lennon walked in. Lennon, the goofball anarchist of The Beatles, explored the exhibit, which included a white ladder that reached all the way to the ceiling. At the top was a magnifying glass, and on the ceiling were three little letters, so small you might miss them. "You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" Yoko was doing her own thing, markedly different from the art of her day: "all anti-, anti-, anti-," as John recalled. The two quickly became a bonded pair, and together they began to imagine the world as a place of possibility, with power being not something you harness so much as something that simply exists within you and without you, something you simply embrace. "War is over!" they shouted from the rooftops of Times Square in New York City. "(If you want it)" was the whisper to the shout.

"Imagine there's no heaven," John wrote, and we imagine Yoko sitting next to him at the piano as he wrote. "Above us only sky." I follow Yoko on Twitter and to this day she's still imagining such lofty, implausible things: Imagine that you are mystically joined to every other thing in the universe, such that your inner peace can manufacture world peace. Ten years and a world apart from Stan Lee, Yoko sees the universe differently, and she gives a little time each day to shaping it from her little corner of it. The two of them, Stan Lee and Yoko Ono, strike me as competing visions for how the universe works: Do we seize power, shape it and set it loose on the world? Or do we breathe power in and out, and so hold it loosely as we share it with the world? Yoko and Stan answered that question; the rest of us have to as well.

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There's a third ladder story, this one in the Bible. Jacob the deceiver is on the run from a brother who wants to kill him. He carries with him the blessing of his father, who himself carried with him the promise of God that he and his children would be a blessing to the nations. Jacob has a vision on the road of a ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. This, then, is the biblical view of the universe: Power is something invested in the world by a God who created it and loves it. We come by power as an accident of being. We may harness it, we may hold it, we may share it, we may hoard it. But it doesn't originate with us; it doesn't come into being by sheer force of our will or imagination. "Whatcha gonna do," Kanye West wrote, "with all that power?" It's an ethical question, and God already gave us the answer: Use it to bless.